The snow outside is falling ever so slowly – star-shaped flakes so dry and weightless they don't fall so much as float through space like Santa's Beards kids blow on from dandelions. Centimetres upon centimetres of the white stuff is collecting in the rims of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Yama Kitchen & Bar at Hotham Central. Wily Hotham veteran, and head of ski patrol for the mountain, Bill Barker, has seen it all before in his 20-plus years here, but he's still got the look on his face only a skier or snowboarder really knows anything about (like a kid the night before Christmas).
"Yep, there's just something about snow, isn't there, you never lose the excitement," Barker says, looking out past his reflection in the window. But then, he says there's a good reason for that. It's not so much the snow as it is this mountain. His mountain. He says no other mountain in Australia offers skiers and snowboarders the thrills and spills this mountain does on a powder day.
"It's got the best chutes and the best steeps (ski runs) in Australia," he says. "It's a lot better on the world scale than you'd think. A lot of people think Australia's a long way behind when it comes to ski terrain but on a good day you'd be surprised by what you'd find out here. The only thing holding people back is their imagination, I've had some of my best ski days anywhere in the world right here."
Considering Barker spends his off-seasons guiding skiers across the Himalayas, he should know a thing or two about deep snow and steep mountains. Beside him at the dinner table – attacking a plate of spanner crab rolls and pork gyoza – one of Mt Hotham Alpine Resort's greatest skiers, media identity and village DJ extraordinaire Paul "Buff" Farnell, looks just as lost in the snowflakes.
He's skied all over the world searching for the wildest peaks and the deepest snow in a lifetime of ski travel – he spent six winters in Austria, and lived in Chamonix (France) and Steamboat Springs (the home of champagne powder in north-western Colorado) and skied right across Japan's famed powder island of Haikkaido; but he says Hotham can match it with the best of them… on the right day.
"My best days have been at Hotham," he says between mouthfuls. "I live here in winter and so I get to dive in when it's on so I can tell you, it rates with the best. The terrain and the way the big steep mountains here collect the snow reminds me of other box canyon towns like Alta (in Utah) and Telluride (in Colorado). There's steep shoots down natural half-pipes with hits everywhere. Hotham ticks all the boxes for expert skiers and boarders. It's got the steepest terrain in Australia. Period. There's such radical terrain with bowls that you can just traverse into and hike out of, and it's got the best snow-collecting valleys anywhere in the country."
Mt Hotham Alpine Resort is considered to be the ski resort for serious skiers and snowboarders in Australia. Australian ski and snowboarding bible, Powderhounds, says Mt Hotham is where the real skiers and snowboarders go: "…the advanced and expert terrain is what makes Hotham ski resort stand out, not only from its Victorian counterparts, but also from all Aussie ski resorts."
Mt Hotham Alpine Resort is regarded as the best place to ski in Australia on powder days because it has some of the best back-country skiing in the southern hemisphere. There's ridges, gullies, bowls, glades, chutes and ridges that are all easily accessible courtesy of the Great Alpine Road (the road that leads to Mt Hotham Alpine Resort) which winds its way above the slopes. What's more, 40 percent of Mt Hotham Alpine Resort's in-bound terrain is designated advanced, meaning it has the highest proportion of black runs in Australia.
While thousands of Australians jet off in ever-increasing numbers to North America, Japan and Europe each year, many of them don't realise that on the right day Mt Hotham Alpine Resort can boast similar snow conditions… in similar terrain.
Of course, riding Mt Hotham Alpine Resort's advanced terrain is not without its risks. Opposite to most ski mountains, Hotham is relatively flat on top and gets steeper the lower you go as you drop into its tight valleys – characterised by steep-faced gullies and challenging tree runs. Though most runs funnel out into a trail back to the chairlifts, it's still easy enough to lose your way in Mt Hotham's challenging side-country and back-country.
But Mt Hotham Alpine Resort offers intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders the chance to sample the best spots only locals know anything about in ski and snowboard master classes each day.
Specially trained coaches will take skiers and snowboarders into the steepest descents in Mt Hotham's extreme zones to refine the technique required to ride some of Australia's toughest terrain, in its deepest snow. There's also a class for skiers and snowboarders wanting to refine their tree-riding skills.
I'm put into a group of snowboarders wanting to ride Mt Hotham's steepest slopes far away from the groomed runs. We make our way by chairlift to the far right side of the mountain. Over 20 centimetres of fresh snow has fallen since dinner last night – conditions are the best they've been all season.
On a powder day, the best runs can be found here off the Gotcha chairlift, where only intermediates and advanced skiers and riders should venture. But for those wanting completely untracked snow away from crowds, the trees to the side of the Gotcha chairlift lie in wait.
Mt Hotham Alpine Resort offers free Kat Skiing throughout the season when snow conditions are favourable – an eight-seater Snow Kat picks us up at the top of Spargo's ski run and drops us off at the top of the peak opposite us, at Golden Point. This is Australia's best side-country terrain. We'll be riding boot-deep powder snow between snow gums and mountain ash, taking steep chutes and avoiding cliff drops out here in some of Australia's prettiest alpine countryside.
"Don't look at the trees when you ride through them," my guide says, as we strap into our snowboards above a forest of snow gums. "Look at where you want to go between them, if you look at the tree, you're going to hit it. Plot your path three turns ahead and stick to it."
It's cold this morning, so the snow today isn't as heavy as you'd normally expect in Australia, instead it's almost as light and dry as what you'll find in the Rocky Mountains. And out here, no one has left their tracks on the fresh snow.
I work my way slowly through the snow gums, narrowly avoiding overhanging branches, criss-crossing the mountain side, with one eye on the view below me and another on the path between the trees immediately ahead of me. We work our way down to a narrow trail through the trees, traversing our way above a fast-flowing mountain stream. One of our group loses his place on the trail and catapults into the creek below. He re-surfaces and drags himself back to the trail, water dripping from his beanie.
I'm surprised by the scale of the terrain here, and the length of the runs through the trees. Any skier or snowboarder who's travelled to the super-resorts of North America and Europe notes how short ski runs are in Australia by comparison. But with the Snow Kat taking skiers and boarders higher up into the mountains, our runs are lengthened considerably. After 20 minutes of riding, we're funnelled out to the Heavenly Valley chairlift.
But you don't necessarily have to venture into the trees at Mt Hotham Alpine Resort to find powder snow and challenging terrain. Mt Hotham Alpine Resort has the most natural snowfall of any ski resort in Victoria and has the best aspect – along with Thredbo in New South Wales – for trapping powder snow when storms hit the Australian Alps. As a result, there's no better place to be on a powder day.
"I've had times where we've skied knee-deep, soft powder for a week straight," Hotham local and TV identity Marcus Lovett says. "I've skied champagne powder up to my waist, I've never missed getting powder in a season. But the best thing about Hotham is the fact it's steep, it's no good having powder snow without steep slopes to ride on."
Mt Hotham Alpine Resort's in-bound runs are steeper than almost all others in Australia. And one of the most significant differences between Mt Hotham Alpine Resort and other Australian resorts is the fact Mt Hotham Alpine Resort is the only ski resort in the southern hemisphere built above its slopes (effectively making it an "upside down ski resort"), so you'll never have to wait in a chairlift line for your first powder run of the day. Instead, you can ski right out of your accommodation and straight onto the ski slopes below you.
And if you'd like to make the most of fresh snowfall before others wake up, Mt Hotham Alpine Resort opens its Heavenly Valley chair-lift at 7.30am from Wednesday to Sunday.
"There's a frontier feeling here that reminds me of resorts in the US like Jackson Hole and Steamboat Springs," Farnell says. "You have to cross the highest mountain range in Australia to get here. This is gold mining country, it's wild and steep."
Mt Hotham Alpine Resort is located at the top of the Great Alpine Road in Victoria, 4.5 hours north-east of Melbourne and eight hours southwest of Sydney. Take the Hume Highway, then follow the signs to Mt Hotham Alpine Resort.
Check out which runs you'd like to ski tomorrow from a lounge room overlooking the slopes at Sambuca Apartments, see hothamholidays.com.au/accommodation/find-accommodation/sambuca/
For more information on ski and snowboard master classes with elite coaches, see mthotham.com.au/lessons-gear/snowsports-lessons/images/Masterclasses_Program_Information.pdf
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Mt Hotham Alpine Resort.